Salem’s Moving History: The Continuing Saga of Witch City vs. the Peabody Essex Museum

I posted the below piece as a Twitter thread yesterday (so if it seems choppy, that’s why). This version contains elaborations, corrections, and a particularly relevant response.

February 26, 2018 — I’ve been following the latest in the Salem, MA, vs. Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) story avidly. It involves witches and art, monied institutions, powerless populaces, the control of history, and the character of a place.

It’s a fascinating, ongoing story that I dedicated a chapter to in A Season with the Witch. In precis, PEM in Salem is the ninth largest art museum in the country (and possibly larger after its current expansion finishes). That ranking is by area, not by collection size.

It was formed in the 1990s when two early American Salem museums (one a local history museum and the other dedicated to the international treasures brought back by Salem’s seafaring founders) merged.

The new version of PEM aimed to be a world-class, internationally relevant art institute, and then—surprisingly—met that goal. However, the museum is uncomfortable with Salem’s spooky reputation. It’s also uncomfortable with its own role as custodians of much of the city’s local history (it owns or controls many of the records from Salem’s 400 years of rich history, including most of of the Witch Trials documents and artifacts).

It won’t display the Witch Trials artifacts, is embarrassed by October, wishes it was in a major city (and that the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston wasn’t so close), and would rather Salem have a salty, genteel North Shore reputation than a Witch City one.

That’s compounded by the fact that PEM is extremely well-funded (by old-monied souls whom I think are also uncomfortable with the city’s black and orange reputation) and—get this—owns much of the downtown.

That’s caused discord over the years as this big fish of a museum in the small pond of Salem has constricted access to materials, pushed for development of the downtown in ways that benefit it more than Salem’s other tourism, hidden Salem’s most famous artifacts, etc. Again, all while being extremely successful at creating a world-class art experience and ignoring anything too local.

The latest saga is that PEM has moved the historic records of the city (including Witch Trials stuff) in its purview to an offsite in Rowley where those records/artifacts will be more difficult to reach. And, most interestingly, just won’t be in Salem.

It’d be kind of like the Smithsonian keeping the original documents of the country in Frederick, MD (which honestly, it probably does, but only because it has too much to display and not because it wants them out of sight, out of mind).

Phillips Library on Essex Street, where the materials have historically been kept.

The whole thing’s a great, great story: A conflict of past vs. future, rich vs. pedestrian, art vs. history, city vs. institution, kitsch vs. culture, culture vs. character.

My feeling on this is that PEM should do whatever it wants to become a cultural force in the country. Over the past couple of decades, it’s been one of the great successes in the museum world. On the other hand, I think Salem needs an official history museum, an institution to protect its sensitive narrative that gets contorted every time someone uses the phrase Witch City (although I do love that contortion and use that phrase every chance I get).

Feels like both those concepts are doable, though, right?

But PEM would have to divest itself of some holdings (which is kind of an anti-museum thing to do) or create a sub-branded organization in charge of local history assets (which sounds cool, but would be a big, expensive initiative that would distract resources from PEM’s stated goals).

In conclusion, there’s no easy answer and you should Google “Blackbeard's skull” and “PEM.” You’ll have a good time. Actually let me do it for you.


After publishing the above thread, I was responded to by Donna Seger—a Salem resident, history professor, and the force behind the excellent Streets of Salem blog. She wanted to clarify and context some of my, admittedly, outsider ramblings.

She pointed out that the Witch Trial records are court records, so they belong to the state and, she thinks they will be “likely going back to the main state repository at Columbia Point,” which is in Boston. They are technically on loan to PEM.

I’m not sure why PEM changing repositories would suddenly make these not on loan anymore after 40 years of stewardship. But in addition to official court records, PEM also holds records and artifacts donated by families of the witch trial participants and private collectors. So I think Salem still loses that much more of its witchiness (keep in mind this is a place where most of the buildings with a connection to the trials have disappeared over time, with the only real exception being the Witch House).

But Donna’s main point was this: “The witch trials story is such a small part of the much larger story of donor intent and public trust.” And I agree, although sticking a pointy hat on that story makes outsiders like me care about it a lot more.

Here’s my full thread complete with the subsequent Twitter dialogue between Donna and me.

Check out Donna’s site, where she’s written regularly and thoughtfully on this topic over the past months.

Finally, check out A Season with the Witch, as I interviewed some of the central parties of the story, including PEM’s Vice Present of Marketing, the mayor, and various locals.